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15 October 2014
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Krystyna's Escape Part 1: Life in Occupied Poland

by dobraczynska

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Krystyna Maria Anna Johnson (nee Dobraczynska)
Location of story: 
Warsaw, Poland, Germany, Britain
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 May 2004


This is an account of the war experiences of Krystyna Johnson (nee Dobraczynska) who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, and after the war was over, escaped from Russian occupied Poland to rejoin her father in West Germany. She began to write down her story at the request of her family, but the account was unfinished at the time of her death from cancer in 2003. Her husband Jim has completed her story and added some background notes.

I have often been asked by my family to tell them the story of my escape from behind the Iron Curtain ( a story of which they heard bits when I was particularly quizzed by some aquaintance). Now when I have health worries which remind me of my mortality, I thought it better to write it down more ado.When i did write the details of my escape I fould there were lots oquestions about why this and why that, so I decided to start my story from the beginning of the war.

Apart from a cameo memory at the age of three of my Grandfather laid out before his funeral, when my mother urged me to “remember this, Krystyna”, my earliest memories are of a building site when I was about 5. My parents, together with two couples had decided to build a small apartment block in Saska Kempa, then an up and coming garden city suburb on the south eastern fringe of Warsaw. In 1938/9 the building work was in full swing. I remember the dangerous lime pits from which we children had to keep clear, and the general collection of piles of materials and boaerds that covered the site. There was also no shortage of the material usually available on site — mud. This was used under my direction to be made into mud hamburgers which were neatly placed in rows on any available timber board. I wonder if this was the early introduction to building sites which later led me to become an architect, following what would have been my father’s profession had not the first world war not intervened in his education (architecture courses were full to bursting in Warsaw when returned from that war).

We moved into the new villa 2 or 3 months before the outbreak of WW2, before the building was completely finished.I was not aware of worrying about the war, only sad that my father had to leave us for a while. He was working on the latest electronic equipment for PZT — Polskie Zaklady Techniczne — and he was strongly advised with other senior staff and management to briefly leave the country. Apparently it was accepted at the time that the Germans only had enough ammunition to last for 2 or 3 months at the most, so the war was not expected to last for very long!

My father tried to persuade my mother that all three of us should leave the country together but my mother was “sensible” and decided to stay and not leave her responsible job as matron in charge of a health centre. No doubt she also thought about taking care of our property; however that idea became completely unimportant the minute we realised the German army would soon enter Warsaw. The fledgling garden city atmosphere of Saska Kempa did not feel a secure place for a lone woman and child and my mother decided that we should leave our new home and join her 3 sisters in my Grandma’s household in a flat in central Warsaw.

Already there was a terrifying chaos on the roads, with some, like us, walking and carrying bags or pushing carts towards the centre of Warsaw, and others from the centre seeking security in the surrounding countryside. This was my first introduction to the terrors of war and my farewell to a normal childhood. The Germans took Warsaw on 14 September 1939, just two weeks after their invasion of Poland started.

My father travelled first east then south through many countries, and finally joined the Parachute Brigade of the Free Polish Army in Britain. The Brigade fought as part of the British army, took part in the attack on Arnhem, and latterly was stationed in Fife in Scotland. My mother and father kept in occasional contact through the Red Cross in Switzerland and Sweden. And I remmember occasional small parcels of food (packets of dates and chocolate) arriving. These were a fantastic boost to our morale.

Despite living in Warsaw during the German occupation I have happy memories of this time , being with my lovely cuddly Granny, of sharing her feathered bed when all other adults went out to work (children didn’t start school until 7 in Poland), of “helping” her with cooking. Wonderful memories of Christmas in a large family. First weeks before Christmas helping my aunty Misia make Christmas tree decorations for sale. I remember still the silver stars meant for the tops of the trees and the hanging chinamen with coolie hats and a pony-tail, made from blown out egg shells. Also armies of origami style Father Christmases and other seasonal personalities, snowmen etc. I remember the pleasure in helping to create something so wonderful.

Then a couple of days before Christmas it was time to bake the cakes — a wonderful occasion. Rationing of food was in full swing and we used powdered eggs and the jam was made from beetroot. No doubt real eggs were “saved up” for Christmas. Looking back on it now I don’t know how my family aquired all the necessary ingredients, however there were four earning adults living together so I suppose life was not too haed. My memories are of several different enormous cakes; however these memories may be tinged by a child’s view of size and amount. Suffice to say that making the “kogiel mogiel” — a mixture of egg yolks and sugar — was the highlight of the year. My kind granny allowed me to take a large part in the stirring process and also in scraping out and eating the remnants of the bowl at the end.

In the meantime my grandmother’s flat in ulica Szopena (Chopin St) was rather overcrowded. The three unmarried aunts — Mysia, Danka and Lula — were grumbling about the disruption caused by the children of the two married sisters. I was 5 and my cousin Andrzej, who was also looked after by granny, had been born in 1939. After a couple of years my mother tired of the squabbles between the sisters, and decided we should move away. Sometime later we moved to ulica Koscielna 10 in the Old Town. It was a small but elegant apartment in one corner of the inner courtyard (the street frontages of Warsaw tenements comprised the largest flats occupied by professionals and other prestigious residents).

This move made me more aware of the financial difficulties that my mother (and others) were facing. Probably because we were thrown together apart from other members of the family, my mother started confiding in me more, and I had to become more responsible (I was then about 8). My memories of that time are different, much more aware of the German presence. Often we would hear of streets being shut off at the end and everyone caught being sent to one of several well known concentration camps, or to the large prisons in Warsaw. Others were simply shot dead in the street (today one can still find little impromptu altars on the streets of Warsaw, with notes listing the victims and their dates of death — often decorated with bunches of fresh flowers). The sound of loud relentlessly approaching heavy footsteps on my street or courtyard would fill me (and no doubt everyone else) with terror. I have seen detained people waving from prison windows in the hope of family or friends seeing them.

We had started renting our small back room to a wealthy elderly Jewish couple, and my mother told me if the Germans found that out we would definately be shot on the spot. Should the Germans come when she was out, I was to say they were my grandparents, but we did not hold much hope that this would be believed.

I would like to think it was out of kindness my mother rented the room, but I am sure it was in order to make ends meet. I have memories of other money problems, among them slowly saving money towards a pair of warm boots for me when I outgrew my old ones. In our kitchen we used a small modern cooker (gas?) leaving the original solid fuel range unused.. One day during very cold weather we lit a fire in the old fashioned contraption forgetting that in its depths we had hidden the paper money saved for my boots. A major tragedy!
Background Note
The Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 was one of the greatest tragedies of
the war. AK, the Polish Home Army, the resistance force loyal to the London based Polish government in exile, had an underground force of some 150,000 armed men in Warsaw. They planned to take the city from the Grmans and establish a democratic Polish government before the Russian army arrived to secure the city for the Communists.

On 1st. August, as the first Russian tanks appeared in the eastern suburbs of Warsaw, the AK struck, believing the Germans were weakened and about to withdraw. But Hitler poured crack troops back to resist the Russians and crush the Uprising, and Stalin denounced the leaders of the Home Army as “a handful of power-seeking criminals”.

In the words of Norman Davies:

‘For 63 days the fighting raged with unprecedented savagery, while the Soviet Army, one mile away across the Vistula, looked on in virtual passivity. A quarter of a million civilians died, from shelling, from dive-bombing, or from wholesale nassacres. Sporadic supply drops by British and American planes sent from Italy brought little relief....Block by block, street by street, sewer by sewer, the AK was being squeezed with appalling losses into a tiny enclave in the city centre. (They) capitulated on 2 October. The surviving inhabitants were evacuated. Hitler ordered thatWarsaw be ‘razed without trace’.
(Norman Davies, ‘Heart of Europe; a short history of Poland’ Oxford, OUP, 1986 pb.)

The city of Warsaw and its citizens were some of the first victims of the post-war East West power struggle which led to the ‘Cold War’.

On 1st. August 1944 there was a general uprising in Warsaw. We could hear distant shooting and shelling, and this was understood to be the Russian army pushing out the Germans and approaching the east bank of the Vistula. The approaching shells were called “szafa” (literally wardrobe) because of the loud screeching noise just before the shell reached its target — like a creaking door. Unfortunately things did not work out as planned and we had to live through some weeks of concentrated aggression from the Germans. Most of the 4 storey apartment blocks in our area were bombed, shelled or set on fire. People lived in the cellars until these too were bombed. We were lucky to suvive one or two collapses of nearby cellars. In the numerous local churches there were many wounded who my mother and other medical staff attended to as best they could

Allied forces did not come to aid the uprising and the advancing Russians stayed in Praga on the east bank of the Vistula. When the uprising was defeated the surviving civiliands were told to march out of the ruins of Warsaw. People walked with their bundles to special selection and distribution centres. We had to go to the Pruszkow centre. We spent the night in a church with lots of other people. The church was silent, no-one spoke. We were preparing to be parted from each other. This was the most hellish moment of my childhood. My mother tied her wedding and engagement rings on a string round my neck for future exchange for food.

We heard that people were sorted to go to work or to concentration camps, or to Germany, and that the children and elderly went to the Polish countryside. The next day we were all lined up supervised by German soldiers. The officer doing the sorting was anice young German who was pleased to hear me say “meine mutter” and put us togethet to be sent to the countryside. I tried it on by saying “grandmother” and “grandfather” for the Jewish couple successfully — and then “aunt” for the next lady without success. She was put in the line to be sent to a work camp.

My mother and I, with others, were sheperded into cattle trucks and sent on a
slow journey with many changes and much shunting. I am not sure where in the country we were "dropped off" - a name like Konin rings familiar. The place of
arrival was like heaven to me. A large estate with a lake and we lived in a
large country house with lots of other people, sharing rooms with several
people. I do not remember at all how this was. I only remember playing with other
children: sliding on the frozen lake etc. and a large fish, a carp, being kept alive in the bath while the men did something to the lake where it normally lived.

I remember my Mother doing all sorts of (to me) interesting things to
earn a living. She bought jolly head sqoares and made aprons from them (chopped off a corner at the top and made a pocket). The making of soap was particularly interesting. Boiling some animal fat etc. and filling a baking tin, then cutting it up into squares when set. Baking fresh doughnuts with
jam was also fun as they were dropped into a pan of boiling fat, and they
turned over themselves when the bottom part was cooked. Also my mother used her great nursing skills dressing people’s carbuncles and dealing with other medical problems.

During our stay in this place we went to visit my Granny and aunty Misia
who were somewhere near. . . . ?(ask Andrzej or look in Maciek's letters).
They had lived in central Warsaw throughout the uprising and my Aunty Misia was in the AK. They had been sent to a different distibution centre and had been sent elsewhere else in the countryside.
(check dates of visit) The journey by train was very slow and uncertain (I remember changes, long waits for connections etc).

I do not know how long we were there but the uprising was in August and we spent a winter there. Also we were there when the Germans were driven back westwards and Poland came under Russian occupation.

My next memories are of moving back to Warsaw and living in some small
accommodation off Aleje Jarozolimskie. Only selected people were allowed to move back to Warsaw because of the lack of services in the ruined city. I did not go to school as far as I remember, but I had some friends to play with. In retrospect I think already my Mother must have been thinking of finding a way to join our father in the West. We had very few possessions, though I never remember being hungry or cold. I expect my mother was both!

Part 2 - how Krystyna finally got out of Poland - follows)

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